As has become tradition for me and my friends, 2014’s theatre-going opens with the Edinburgh Royal Choral Union’s Messiah. For 127 years, ERCU have been performing this work at the Usher Hall on the 2nd of January, and I’ve been every year for the last five years.
Where and When: Usher Hall; Thursday 2nd January 2014, 12:00
There is little that I can add to the myriad of essays, books and reviews which have been written about Handel’s Messiah over the years. The Messiah is the archetypal oratorio and possibly one of the best known choral works of all time. It is performed constantly around the world in various forms and is part of the central canon of vocal and choral repertoire. ERUC usually perform the work more or less in its entirety as published in the Watkins-Shaw edition.
This year, there were some cuts, notably, The Trumpet Shall Sound was not sung in full, which was a disappointment. In Part II, items 34 (Unto Which of the Angels said He at any Time) to item 37 (The Lord Gave the Word) were not performed, and in Part III, item 49 (Then shall be brought to pass) to item 51 (But Thanks be to God) were also omitted.
The Choral Union themselves were, as always, outstanding. I happen to know a few of the members, and I know that they have very few rehearsals for this concert. Instead, there is an acquired level of knowledge from the annual performance, and a lot of hard work by individuals.
This year’s guest conductor, James Lowe, is usually an orchestral conductor, which led to some interesting experiences for the choir. He did decide to take an interesting interpretation with the choral elements. Many of the arias were taken (to quote a choir member) “at quite a lick”, and no where was this more obvious than in the Hallelujah Chorus, which did not have the usual dramatic changes of tempo. I’m not sure I liked it, but there are few rules with a work such as the Messiah about how one should interpret performance directions!
Overall, the soloists were a weaker group than in previous years. The bass, Andrew McTaggart, was the least notable, showing neither outstanding talent for baroque oratorio, nor a distinct lack thereof. The same could not be said of the mezzo-soprano, Louise Collett, nor the the tenor, Jamie MacDougall. Neither seemed vocally suited to this work. The mezzo-soprano performed with so much vibrato I was unable to tell at points if she intended to sing a trill, or was just wobbling a lot! Despite her rich tone, Ms Collett also failed to properly sing over the orchestra in the lower passages. The tenor was, I suspect, closer to a baritone, and thus lacked the rich, honey sweetness needed to really excel in this work. On reading his biography, I was given to understand than he sings a lot of German lieder, and I feel this would suit his talents rather better.
On a brighter note, however, the soprano, Emma Morwood, was outstanding. Her vocal vibrato was beautifully controlled allowing her to sing the intricate runs, trills and turns of Handel’s score with precision and expression. For the first time, I truly enjoyed all the soprano arias, rather than slowly zoning out as the twittering obscures the technical genius of the composer. I can only hope that she enjoyed her experience sufficiently to want to return and perform in future years.
Once again, a lovely New Year day out with friends, enhanced by the picnic lunches and traditions of this event. This is, perhaps, the weakest of the performances I have seen so far given the conductor, soloists and cuts, but that does not detract from the wonderful chorus, excellent musicians and remarkable music.
All the arias in the Messiah appear in graded and diploma lists, and should form part of any classical singer’s repertoire. Rather than listing them all, I recommend purchasing a vocal score and exploring these great works yourself.
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